HBO’s true-crime docuseries McMillions saved its biggest whopper (sorry, McDonald’s) for its final episode: Who was the informant that tipped off the Feds about a $24 million scam to defraud one of the largest corporations in the world?
The six-part series tells the story of how former cop Jerry Jacobson rigged a scheme to steal winning tickets from the popular McDonald’s Monopoly sweepstakes and then sell them to people in his inner circle who would collect the winnings. In highly entertaining detail, co-directors James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte follow the FBI’s investigation, beginning with the young, eager agent Doug Mathews who became curious over a Post-it note on his partner’s desk that simply stated: “McDonald’s Monopoly Fraud?”
As revealed in Monday’s finale, that note was connected to a phone call made by the mother of the late Jerry Colombo, a member of the Colombo crime family and one of Jacobson’s main accomplices. The secret was divulged by her son Frank and his wife, Heather, who explained that after Jerry Colombo died, his mother spilled the beans to the FBI to try to keep her grandson from his mother, Robin Colombo.
“There were many jaw-dropping moments, but this was definitely the biggest one,” Lazarte told Vulture. “Like, holy shit, they just put that out there.”
Although the arrests were made almost 20 years ago, the story was pushed off the national front pages because of the 9/11 attacks. The scam was almost forgotten until 2018, when a Daily Beast article sparked a Hollywood bidding war resulting in 20th Century Fox and Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s Pearl Street Films’ buying the film rights for $1 million.
When the article published, Hernandez and Lazarte had been working on their project for a year but hadn’t sold it. Tipped off in 2012 by a Reddit post about the McDonald’s Monopoly scam, Hernandez had spent a year digging through the internet for more information and learned eight people had been arrested but not much else. Wanting to know more, he filed a Freedom of Information request for the case files, he told Vulture, and waited three years to receive “boxes and boxes of records, evidence, photos, and floppy disks.”
In the summer of 2017, Hernandez tracked down federal prosecutor Mark Devereaux and the FBI agents who worked on the case and asked them if they would be interested in participating in a documentary. “They said this is their favorite case, and no one’s ever contacted them about it,” Hernandez said. “They started giving me information, and I realized this is really big.” Hernandez asked Lazarte to join him, and once they realized the scope of the story, they teamed up with Mark Wahlberg’s Unrealistic Ideas to develop it as a TV series instead of a feature.
A month before they planned to pitch their series, the Daily Beast story broke, and news of the movie deal about the scam followed days later. “After having a full-blown meltdown, we thought, Let’s just spend the entire weekend finishing our pitch and go out with it,” Hernandez said. They tried not to sweat the news because they already had the rights to the FBI’s story secured and had established other key relationships. “It’s no longer the greatest story no one’s ever heard of, but it’s this story everybody loves, and we have the rights to the real people,” Hernandez said.
In a joint interview ahead of the McMillions finale, Hernandez and Lazarte spoke to Vulture about their research process, what FBI agent and breakout star Doug Mathews is really like, and how they landed the finale bombshell, which was not revealed in the Daily Beast story.
Doug Mathews is the superstar of this series. What was it like meeting him?
James Lee Hernandez: He’s a superstar in life! He is like what you saw 100 percent of the time. Once, he called us at 11:30 at night and talked for like an hour and a half. That’s how he is all the time.
Do you believe he’s responsible for the great fax debacle? Did he really fax 20 to 30 pages of the case summary to the Greenville News by accident?
Brian Lazarte: It’s a funny story how we tracked that down. We had heard about this fax story. We happened to be in South Carolina filming, and we see the Greenville News building right in front of us. And I’m like, “Wait, what was the newspaper in the fax story?” We walked into the newspaper and said, “You guys probably don’t remember this, but in 2001, you were approached by the FBI.” The reporter who received the fax, John Boyanoski, no longer works there, so we called him. He just burst out laughing and said he had been sworn to secrecy. Not even his wife knew the story. He said he needed to call the FBI to get permission to talk, and 15 minutes later, called us back and told us the story.
But did Doug do it?
James Lee Hernandez: We’re not totally sure. There’s a lot of finger-pointing, and we don’t know how much gamesmanship is involved. They’re still blaming each other.
So Doug is trying to blame Mark Devereaux?
James Lee Hernandez: It’s more of Doug just trying to get the blame off of him. That’s all he cares about.
The finale delivers big! Frank and Heather tell us who the informant is, and it’s stunning. When in the process did you find out this information?
James Lee Hernandez: It was at the end. When we originally talked to them, they threw it out there. That’s in the show. We were at their house late at night, and Frank just throws out, “You know what you guys don’t have? You don’t know who the informant is.” So we’re like, “Do you know?” And he’s like, “Well, I gotta look into it. Talk to some people.”
Brian Lazarte: It came out of nowhere. We got invited to come back, and they just dropped it in the middle of the interview. Then moments later, Vinny, their son, shows up in a McDonald’s outfit. [Laughs.] There were many jaw-dropping moments, but this was definitely the biggest one. Like, holy shit, they just put that out there.
Had you been asking other people? Lee Cassano was convinced that she was the informant since she had called the IRS.
Brian Lazarte: Oh, we were trying all the time. Lee was very convinced. Dwight Baker was convinced that it wasn’t a tip from the FBI and that he was somehow to blame. Everyone had their own unique version of the story, and as we were going further and further down the rabbit hole, they were all very plausible. Robin said it was Frank. We were actually convinced at one point that it was Robin because she had threatened to go to the FBI. She also had a former boyfriend that was a federal agent. Once Frank and Heather shared with us what they did, all the pieces of the puzzle made sense. We did our due diligence corroborating stories, making sure that what they put out was facts. But what Heather and Frank say makes a lot of sense.
Did you try to talk to Frank’s mother?
James Lee Hernandez: It’s crazy because we found out that information after we had seen her at the birthday party. We reached out, but the Colombo family is very on the defensive, very hesitant. They don’t speak English extremely well, so it was a tough sell.
Did Robin know her mother-in-law called the FBI?
Brian Lazarte: Robin speculated. Their relationship is so interesting because today they’re actually quite close. They talk almost every day. We have also heard that it’s a little manic. One month they’re like BFFs and then they’re not talking to each other.
What did you make of the reasoning? Do you think it was because Frank’s mother wanted to keep custody of her grandson?
James Lee Hernandez: In a weird way, this all totally makes sense. It is a very extreme way of trying to get a grandchild, but you hear things like this when children are involved. It’s like all bets are off.
Brian Lazarte: Everybody has said that talking to us has been a bit of a purge. Many of our subjects have been holding on to a slew of information over the years and they’ve never talked about it, so this was a unique moment, almost therapeutic in a way. Frank and Heather, as they put it, they’d been holding on to this all these years. I think some people just want that relief. It’s a dead case, it’s adjudicated — no one can get in trouble.
Did you break it to Robin, or did she know through the family?
Brian Lazarte: She has speculated, and we confirmed it.
How did she take that?
James Lee Hernandez: It was sad and frustrating, but there’s nothing she can do to change it. She’s really focusing on what she can do in her life now to be better. So it was obviously upsetting, but at the same time, the past is in the past.
Brian Lazarte: She also suffers from manic depression — she’s been open about it with us — so there’s some good days and some bad days for her. What she’s been through, James and I joke that she has nine lives. There are so many instances of How in the world did you survive that? And yet here she is.
What about Jerry Jacobson? You must have tried hard to get him.
James Lee Hernandez: It was a battle to try and get him. We’re still trying. I don’t think I’ll ever stop. But a lot of times, the legend of something is far greater than the reality. And the legend of Uncle Jerry seems extremely large.
Brian Lazarte: Is there any redeemable element to him telling his side of the story? Perhaps. But he’s also moved on and tried to put this in his past. I think the separation that he wanted to maintain was greater than what he would gain out of sharing his side of the story. We did our best, but it’s nice to have a little mystery dangling out there. From a storytelling angle, not having him participate might not have been a bad thing after all.
The tone of the series was atypical to the true-crime genre. There are a lot of moments of levity, thanks to Doug, but also in your choice of music. Can you talk about how you balanced that?
James Lee Hernandez: From the very beginning, this was part of our plan. At first, HBO didn’t fully understand because Brian and I had never seen something in the doc space that had toed that line. It was very important to allow for levity because this isn’t about a mass murder or someone wrongfully accused, but there are very serious things and ramifications for what happened in this case. And so we wanted this to be structured like life is structured. Sometimes things can be funny and tragic in the blink of an eye.
Brian Lazarte: You don’t have to come out of the gate swinging one style and maintain that through all six episodes. The story inherently had funny components. If you have funny moments, funny characters, you embrace that. It did play out very much like a caper at first, and then we wanted to slow it down and get more personal with some of the characters involved. With good stories, you get to laugh a little, you get to cry a little, and it makes you think and talk about it after you’re done watching. We certainly hope that audiences who watched the entire series experienced all those feelings.
What other surprises did you run into?
James Lee Hernandez: Gloria Brown was a huge surprise. You have this concept that she’s part of this criminal ring and then this person is completely different than what you had originally imagined. You’re sitting there listening to someone tell you the story, and your heart breaks for what they thought was their chance, their blessing, their time to get ahead. But it flips and becomes one of the scariest things to happen to them.
Brian Lazarte: Something else that we didn’t include was there was another fax debacle. When they did the wiretap on Jerry Jacobson, the way it’s done is you send a subpoena to the phone company to tap a person’s phone. Well, the person who was supposed to receive the fax at the phone company was Linda, who was Jerry Jacobson’s wife. But she was out sick that day. It was a huge thing assuring the FBI that Linda had not seen it. What are the odds?
Is there anything about Doug that you didn’t include in the series?
Brian Lazarte: Oh, yes! You know the gold suit? He actually wore that gold suit to the first day of trial. Mark Devereaux kicked him out and said, “Go home and change that shit right now.” Doug Mathews is convinced that Mark Devereaux paid his wife to destroy that suit.